"I'm discontented with homes that I've rented/so I have invented my own," sang Dominque Eade slowly, over a simple bass accompaniment. But within a verse she had quadrupled the tempo and was into a lickety-split version of Thelonious Monk's "Skippy" — all odd angles and leaping intervals, guitarist Brad Shepik and tenor saxophonist Donny McCaslin in tight unison with her. The opening tune she explained, was "Tea for Two," and "Skippy" was Monk's inscrutable interpolation of it.
If Monk was inscrutable, Eade is anything but. Her performance at Scullers Thursday night was all about transparency — of textures, of expression, of delight. The instrumentation was almost a guarantee of that — voice, tenor, guitar, bass (John Lockwood). No drums. A "chamber" group. So when she played a song she'd written for the great drummer Billy Hart, she peered around at the back of the stage and asked us to use our imaginations.
Transparency is also about exposure, risk, honesty. If only because there's no place to hide. Eade likes these small groups — there's no clutter, and every voice acts as an equal partner. But the spare setting also heightens that exposure and risk. Eade played a high-wire act all night. Daring scatted improvisations at lightning speed demonstrated her stunning control in all registers — not just of pitch, but of rhythm. "The Tender Trap" is usually sung as a "schwinger," she said, but she and Lookwood (who have made their duo performance of the song a set-piece over the years) took it at top speed, and she didn't fluff a single syllable or note.
At times, Eade sang a cappella — as in a brief melody from 12th century mystic nun Hildegard von Bingen, or her own wistful "Chasing the Setting Sun." She seems all the more exposed at these moments because her voice is lean, athletic, strong, but without the heft of a heavyweight mezzo. So she's vulnerable even when she's in complete command. Which is why she could take Aretha's "All the King's Horses" and make it her own.
What else? She was charming, funny, working hard and having a great time. Though she and McCaslin have known each other for years, this was their first gig together, and it was a pleasure to see them discover each other in the music, the two of them twining upper-register lines around each other. What are all those risks about, after all? Technique, but also faith, and trust in your fellow musicians. Go ahead, go out on a limb — the music will still be there for you. She ended on a Don Cherry calypso, "Happiness," which included her own sung story of meeting Cherry in New York, and him inviting her to jam at a gig that night — "a dream come true." But when she got to the gig, there was a line out the door and she couldn't get in. "Happiness" she sang, "is 97 percent illusion. But I don't mind it."